Historical fiction is often just a guilty pleasure. Sadly, many writers unable to imagine their own great story hide behind history and contrive a story to match their research. But when historical fiction is well written it isn’t a bit contrived; it’s entertaining and enlightening. Reading fine historical fiction is like taking your grandmother’s timeless recipes and creating your own stock from the bones left from your holiday prime ribs of beef and tasting cornbread made in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. These novels are as satisfying as anything made with fresh ingredients in your grandmother’s ageless skillet. (My definition of historical fiction is fiction set at least fifty years ago.)
The best of 2014 are:
· All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doeer
· Euphoria by Lily King
· Let Him Go by Larry Watson (published in 2013)
· Lila by Marilynne Robinson
· Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
· The Powers by Valerie Sayers (published in 2013)
· The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (published in 2011)
Yes, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is missing from my list and yes, it’s on many other “best of” lists but while I found the abolitionists in 1922 South Carolina and the story of Handful, the slave, to be compelling, I was less intrigued by Sarah Grimké’s tale. I liked each of the novels I’ve listed better.
The Best Historical Fiction Novel of 2014
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doeer is a book about the past that is certain to be read far into the future. This National Book Award Finalist blends the lives of two teenagers during World War II in a way that absolutely soars. Marie-Laure, a blind girl, lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Natural History Museum. He builds her an intricate model of their neighborhood that she memorizes at home then confidently navigates Paris with her cane. They escape the German occupation in San-Malo, a walled French village, where her eccentric uncle won’t leave their house by the sea. At the same time brilliant German orphan Werner’s expertise with radio transmitters lands him in the Wehrmacht tracking illegal radio transmissions and he ends up in Russia and then in Sant-Malo. A sub plot involving a missing diamond brings in more intriguing characters. There’s old-fashioned magic in this book with its intricate puzzle boxes, thoughts of survival with dignity, and the power of the human spirit to endure.
Euphoria by Lily King, Anthropologists Nell Stone (inspired by Margaret Mead), Stone’s husband Fen, and Englishman Bankston canoe up New Guinea’s Sepik River to record tribal culture. A 1930s love triangle sets this distinctive trio on their way to find euphoria. Reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Patchett’s State of Wonder, this novel is entirely unique and will leave the reader unsettled, captivated, and in awe of King’s immense talent.
Let Him Go by Larry Watson, George, a retired sheriff, and his wife, Martha, head off to reclaim their grandson from their daughter-in-law who’s remarried after their son’s death in this novel set in the early 1950s in North Dakota and Montana. The new in-laws, a violent, evil crew, set the stage for a frightening climax while George and Martha’s relationship stars. If you loved Watson’s Montana, 1948 or are a fan of Kent Haruf and Leif Enger, you’ll adore this. (2013)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson, If you loved Gilead, read this prequel. It’s more essay and theology than it is narrative yet Lila and her early life and the world of 1920s and 1930s poverty as seen through the lives of Midwestern migrant workers are beautifully rendered and the love that builds between Lila and Rev. Ames is almost mystical. A National Book Award finalist, it’s on many “Best Book” lists.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom is a quirky, witty, beautiful novel that opens with “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.” Then 11-year-old Eva’s mother abandons her on her Dad’s doorstep where she meets her half-sister Iris. The girls go to California where Iris is in movies until a scandal forces their move to NYC in a Thelma and Louise-style road trip. Capturing the prejudices and pulse of the 1939–1948 period, it shows that family is more than genetics. Read my full review.
The Powers by Valerie Sayers is set in New York in 1941 as war looms and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak seizes everyone. It captures 17-year-old Agnes O’Leary and her grandmother, the indomitable Babe, who has cared for Agnes’ family since her mother’s suicide. Babe, a diehard Yankee fan, knows that her prayers and powers fuel DiMaggio and the Yanks. The Washington Post’s Ron Charles aptly calls Babe a “baseball loving Olive Kitteridge.” The narrative grips; Babe and DiMaggio reign, and the photographs that are imaginatively interspersed throughout the text make the reader feel the era. (2013)
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak, Baby Jozef survives after his mother tosses him into a Colorado river in 1899 in the bold opening of this story of war, forgiveness, and dreams. Jozef’s father takes him back to his Slovakian homeland where they live as shepherds. Cousin Zlee becomes Jozef’s adopted brother and their sharpshooting and English language skills move them to the front in World War I’s stark battles. It’s a spare, Cormac McCarthy-like rendering of war, survival, love, and forgiveness that was a National Book Award finalist. It’s sad how few people know about this great novel. (2011)